An exhibition by artist Noam Toran at Tel Aviv’s RawArt Gallery takes us back to Arab and Jewish rail workers in 1930s Haifa and imagines an alternative to the bloody conflict between the two peoples. Instead of death and hatred, Toran offers a fantasy of partnership based on solidarity among workers.
The multi-media artist Noam Toran is currently showing an extraordinary exhibition at the RawArt Gallery in Tel Aviv.[i] The exhibition, accompanied by a theatrical performance written by the artist, is ambitiously titled “A shining meteor will light the path of the worker.”[ii] In this work, Toran takes us back to the 1930s, and to the Jewish and Arab workers at the Haifa railway, focusing on their attempt to work together on the basis of class unity and solidarity that transcend nation and language barriers.
Despite the temptation to paint the past in rosy hues, Toran’s fascinating project avoids nostalgia, directing a critical and unprejudiced eye at the past. The Jewish and Arab workers are presented in identical clothes and with identical work bags. Their legs and heads, which might have enabled viewers to identify the national group they belong to, have been replaced with poisonous snakes, symbol of the nationalism that went to the heads of the workers and led to the tragedy of bloody conflict that continues to this day.
The exhibition includes an installation of heavy work tools made of cardboard, fictitious Arab and Jewish workers, and a picture of Ethel Rosenberg, an American communist accused of passing nuclear secrets to the USSR who was executed in the 1950s together with her husband Julius.
In preparing for the exhibition, Toran delved into the history of workers’ struggles in the new industries in British Mandatory Palestine after WWI. Haifa’s huge railway workshop takes center stage. This workshop was a melting pot for unionizing throughout the Mandate period. Toran took inspiration from Bulus Farah, a Palestinian communist and unionist whose autobiography “From the Ottoman Regime to the Hebrew State” was translated into Hebrew a few years ago.[iii]
Noam Toran was born in 1975 in New Mexico, USA, to Israeli parents. His grandfather was among the founders of the Ohel Theatre, a Hebrew-language theatre active in Mandatory Palestine and during the first years of the State of Israel. His journey in his grandfather’s footsteps was central to the research which Toran undertook, even if it is absent from the final exhibition. Toran’s artistic work spans the US, England and the Netherlands, where he lives. His work, including pictures, installations, theatrical performances and films, is shown in museums and on stages around Europe and in the US.
The curator of his current exhibition, Leah Abir, met Toran during an exhibition he held in Bat Yam Museum about a decade ago. Since then, she says, they have sought ways of working together. When she joined the RawArt staff, she suggested Toran hold an exhibition there. Abir explains that Toran’s interest in the railworkers’ struggles reflects his desire to present political movements and forgotten theatrical forms from the beginning of the last century in a new light. His aim is to widen the cultural and political dialogue which, he thinks, has become very narrow in the last decade.
In the exhibition and performance, Toran attempts to imagine an alternative to the bloody conflict that reached its terrible peak in the war of 1948, in which Jews gained independence at the expense of the Palestinians whose existence was destroyed.
Toran thus leads us to imaginary spaces, in which it is possible for the Palestinian Bulus Farah to connect with the fictional Haim Heimlich, a young Jewish poet seeking inspiration and a link to reality in the harsh workshops of the railway. In Toran’s fantasy, Heimlich wanders along the roads of Mandatory Palestine on the back of a flying donkey, and is even granted protection as a guest in the house of Bulus Farah – the only one able to speak to his heart.
At the climax of the piece, Farah and Heimlich come to a meeting of Histadrut and Palestinian trade unionists in Haifa’s Cafe Central. The debate is on whether to declare a joint strike at the railway to improve working conditions. The ideal of Jewish-Arab partnership ends violently when British police enter the cafe. The historical failure of this attempt at solidarity is well known.
The conversations Heimlich has with Paul Robeson, Ethel Rosenberg, Natalia Sedova and Nicolai Gogol are like a dream come true for the artist, who hovers lightly over continents and eras, creating human connections possible only to those whose thinking has escaped the narrow mold of nationalism.
Noam Toran’s sources of inspiration are diverse. The exhibition at the RawArt Gallery joins a long line of avant-garde works in which Toran smashes boundaries and conventions. Among them are an exhibition and performance inspired by “The Jungle”, a monumental work by the American socialist writer Upton Sinclair. Another of his performances features Portuguese revolutionary anarchists who were exiled to Cape Verde prison during the Portuguese dictatorship. Like the poet riding his flying donkey, Toran challenges the way we are drawn to the daily depressing news by taking us back 80 years and demanding we think in a different way.
Translation from Hebrew – Yonatan Preminger
[i]Noam Toran website: http://www.noamtoran.com/NT2009/
[ii]“A shining meteor will light the path of the worker”, exhibition and performance, Noam Toran, curated by Leah Abir, RawArt Gallery, 3 Shvil HaMeretz, Tel Aviv, 7 June to 7 July 2018.
[iii]From the Ottoman Regime to the Hebrew State, by Bulus Farah, translated by Ehud Adiv and Yosef Mansour, published privately.